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Q&A with Steve Cuden Screenwriter and Author of 'Beating Hollywood'

As one of the leading authorities on writing for the stage and screen, Steve Cuden has been a professional screenwriter and educating students for over two decades. Script talks with Steve about his new book, 'Beating Hollywood.'

Denny Schnulo began his writing career at age eleven with the release of his first collection of poems to the kids on the school playground. Believing that first hand reports are always best, he spent his early adult years living and working throughout the world. His writing today is informed by people he met and things they did together. Follow Denny on Twitter: @DennySchnulo

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“The world needs all the entertainment it can get,” as Steve Cuden states in his groundbreaking book, BEATING HOLLYWOOD: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Screenplays, 40 Classic Movies Analyzed.

As one of the leading authorities on writing for the stage and screen, Steve Cuden has been a professional screenwriter and educating students for over two decades. Published in 2013, his first book, Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations has been an invaluable resource for just about anyone who writes for and about the theatre.

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Following the same successful and informative format his newest book, Beating Hollywood: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Screenplays was released in December. Script caught up with Mr. Cuden for some Q&A about his latest effort, what he might have planned for the future, and the wonderful world of movies in general.

Script: Why a screenwriting book and why now?

Steve Cuden: As a longtime screenwriter, I’ve occasionally broken down features into narrative beats so that I could see how their stories operate in slow motion. I had wished for some time that someone would bother to deconstruct a bunch of great movies into beats so I could see how they tick without doing all the heavy lifting myself. Of course, I’ve never found such a book. So, I decided to take on the challenge of writing it. Guess who wound up doing all that work?

I enjoy reading screenwriting books, and I’ve read more than fifty of them, many of them excellent. I believe there are over a thousand books on screenwriting available to the public. That fact caused me to pause before I wrote Beating Hollywood. In my first book, Beating Broadway (2013), I applied the concept of breaking a story into its narrative beats to forty popular musicals. The breakdowns worked fantastically well. After that, I felt as if I’d unlocked an effective way to reveal the core of storytelling. Now screenwriters, producers, directors, educators, and others interested in how classic motion picture stories are structured can easily find breakdowns to forty exceptional movies.

Script: What about this book will make it stand out from the multitudes of other screenwriting books?

Cuden: The same narrative beat breakdowns in the forty movies that we were just discussing. Where else will you find amazing films like Annie Hall, The Godfather Parts I and II, The French Connection, Rocky, The Wizard of Oz, Up, Blade Runner, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Star Wars and many others, broken into their elemental beats? And beyond just the narrative beats I also broke down each story’s three acts, which I call movements, like symphonies; plus the seven essential plot points that can be found in pretty much every unforgettable story; as well as the sequences – which I’ve dubbed “Chapters.” In this way readers can see how all those brilliant stories are told.

Script: If there was only one thing a writer could take away from this book, what would it be?

Cuden: The only way to become a great writer is to write, so I hope Beating Hollywood will inspire writers to keep writing, to improve their work, and to create something wonderful for the world to enjoy. I love movies and TV and I’m always eager to see outstanding stories told well. I wrote Beating Hollywood with the hope that it will illuminate a variety of ways to create and refine screenplays that become movies we can all enjoy.

Script: What would be your logline for the book?

Cuden: A successful screenwriter produces a book of encouraging tips designed to help his fellow writers to create the best movie stories imaginable. He demonstrates how a number of classic movies are structured so that others can see how masters of the craft create popular movies. Screenwriters everywhere find the one hundred fifty tips on writing stories for the screen to be quite useful. And in a grand finale, forty of the greatest movies ever made are broken down into structural elements. This inspires writers to develop the next generation of box office hits.

Script: The classic movie breakdowns in the second half of the book seem like a lot of work. Did you do these for the book or were they accumulated over time as part of your training in the craft?

Cuden: Over the past twenty years or so, I had written breakdowns of a few movies, so I started with a handful of beat sheets. Some of the movies I had already broken down weren’t right for the book for one reason or another. Of the forty movies in Beating Hollywood, there was no previous breakdown for at least thirty-three of them.

Script: I don’t believe any of the forty movies were written by yourself. Is adding in one of your own scripts something you would consider for future editions?

Cuden: In my first book, Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations I analyzed Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical. Perhaps you may know that I wrote the original book and lyrics for that show. So, in that sense I have already published the analysis of my own work, just not in Beating Hollywood. But I thank you for asking. I’ve written about 90 animation scripts, and if I ever write a book on TV animation I may well add something of mine to that mix.

Script: The book’s focus is on creating a great, marketable script. Any future plans to write a book focused on how to sell that script?

Cuden: At the moment I’m concentrating on trying to figure out a new book in the Beating series, but I’m not far enough along to reveal what that’s about just yet. And I’m working on developing two different screenplays, one of which I’d like to direct. And I also have two novels floating around in my head, too, something I’ve never attempted, which is exciting to contemplate. I think that as mysterious as it is to write a screenplay, the game of selling work to producers is even more mysterious. The rules for what producers want seems to change with the wind. People who are the flavor of the month can quickly become uninteresting to Hollywood. It’s an extremely tough business, but great scripts do sell. New internet-based outlets are helping writers to be discovered. I anticipate that producers will always be looking for excellent material. That means good writers will always be in demand. Though I’m not currently considering writing a book about how to sell your work, it’s a fine idea you have there.

Script: Other than the titles you reference in your book, if I only gave you one pick what other book on screenwriting would you recommend?

Cuden: Well, that’s like asking me to pick a favorite movie, which I’m never able to do. So, indulge me if I give you a few: Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, Howard Suber’s The Power of Film, Richard Walter’s Screenwriting: The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing, Paul Chitlik’s Rewrite, and Write Screenplays That Sell the Ackerman Way by Hal Ackerman. There are many other excellent books related to storytelling and screenwriting, including those by Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, Syd Field, Linda Seger, Lajos Egri and many more, but my list above is well worth a read.

Script: That was very unfair asking you to pick just one, so let me do it again - Can you pick a favorite script from the forty? Why?

Cuden: That’s the same problem as picking a favorite book or movie. I think my favorite script of all time is Chinatown. It’s smart, smart, smart, very sexy, and full of terrifically written scenes. But how can you go wrong with the first two Godfather movies? They’re so eminently watchable. Or The French Connection? One of the best pursuit films ever. Or Annie Hall? Maybe the best character comedy ever written. No matter how many times I watch Citizen Kane, I always find something new. Here I go again breaching the limit of movies I can pick. If I were being diplomatic I’d say what I truly feel, which is I love them all equally for different reasons.

Steve Cuden

Steve Cuden

Script: How about a few movies you would have included if there were forty-five in the back of the book? Why?

Cuden: If someday I’m fortunate enough to issue a revision of Beating Hollywood, I would definitely include All the President’s Men because it’s a taut thriller about two guys doing a lot of legwork and typing. And we already know how it ends. Go ahead and make that work. William Goldman really nailed it as a great political detective story. I’d include The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I believe is a modern classic. I might also toss in American Graffiti, Deliverance, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, because they are all among my favorites. I can think of others, but I’d say that’s a good start.

Script: Do you have a personal favorite of your own scripts?

Cuden: My favorite TV animation script is one I wrote for a fantastic Warner Brothers show called Xiaolin Showdown. I wrote five or six episodes of that series, but I’m quite fond of an episode called The Demon Seed. My favorite feature screenplay is one that’s yet to find a producer. It’s called The Memory Tour and is about the estranged son of a wealthy woman with Alzheimer’s disease who finds out he’s been written out of his mother’s will, so he takes his mom on a road trip in the hope that he’ll find a way back into the money. Instead he winds up uncovering secrets about his own true history that brings him close again to his dying mother. I’m fond of that story.

Script: Of all your scripts which one did you learn the most from, maybe inspired an epiphany?

Cuden: That would be Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical. That story is about the duality of man’s nature, the fine line between good and evil in us all, and ever since writing that libretto I’ve looked at people differently. We’re all a mere hair’s width away from becoming uncivilized, wild animals, something terrifying if you think about it. What’s also interesting is how very many other kinds of shapeshifting stories have sprouted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s fever-written novella. Think about how many characters express themselves through two distinctly different sides of the same self: the Hulk, Batman, RoboCop, Mystique in X-Men, Norman Bates in Psycho, Darth Vader in Star Wars, Stanley Ipkiss in The Mask, Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island, Smeagol/Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Tyler Durden in Fight Club, etc. All are essentially inspired versions of Jekyll & Hyde.

Script: How far into your career were you before you actually applied everything in your book?

Cuden: The truth is that I’m still working on applying it all. Screenwriting is a difficult task to get right. So many pieces and parts belong to the whole. There’s much that can go wrong or not hook up well or turn out to be illogical, and so on. But to try and answer your question, I had been a professional writer for at least ten years before I felt like I had a grasp on the form. It takes a long, long time to get good enough at screenwriting to actually achieve a sense of mastery. Of course, the act of writing forces you to regularly reinvent the wheel, so you’re always learning something new. How wonderful is that?

Script: Is there a script of yours you wish you could redo?

Cuden: There are too many to name. Most artists think their work is never really done. Whenever I see work of mine on stage or on a screen, I always think I could have done this or that better. I question why I didn’t write the snappy line of dialogue that hits me as I’m watching. Of course, there’s nothing to be done about it, so why fret over it? I’m reasonably contented and satisfied by most everything I’ve created, and yet I always think I can do better. I think that’s what growth does for you; you get to look at your past work in the light of a deeper, more mature understanding. The real question is: how can I make the next new piece the best I can?

Steve Cuden speaks and signs books at The Writers Store, Burbank, CA on Saturday, May 21, 2016 from 3:00-5:00 pm.



At a Glance:

  • Free Book Signing and Talk with Author Steve Cuden
  • Steve Cuden inspires and provides just the kind of inner positive voice that writers crave
  • For any professional screenwriter, producer, story analyst or film school student hoping to “beat” Hollywood at its own game